Review: The Man With The Iron Heart

The Man With The Iron Heart

One of my theories about Harry Turtledove is that, for all times he’s been labeled “the master of alternate history”, he never had the most enthusiasm for the genre. It goes like this: Turtledove wanted to write Byzantine/Eastern Roman-themed fantasy, but after Guns of The South, alternate history became the money-making niche that he was stuck in. Turtledove would be neither the first nor last writer to have their most successful fiction be considerably different from the type they actually wanted to write.

Or maybe he did have enthusiasm for the genre, but didn’t have the mindset needed to really take advantage of it. Or maybe the nature of alternate history and needing to appeal to a generalist audience who doesn’t have the most knowledge of history forced him into a corner. Whatever the reason, The Man With The Iron Heart symbolizes the weaknesses of his style vividly.

The plot is simple. Reinhard Heydrich survives, gets the Werwolf resistance movement up and running, and launches a horrifically hamfisted/anachronistic Iraq War analogy. In reality, the German populace at large had no stomach for continued resistance, and the Allies, who came close to turning Germany into a giant farm, were prepared to crack the whip. The Werwolf plan was doomed from the get-go by the scarce resources and infighting that was baked into the Nazi regime from day one.

The execution of the book is done just as clumsily and clunkily as the setup. Much of Turtledove’s writing has the problem of what I frequently call the “technothriller without technology or thrills”, and this is no exception. It uses the “alternate history as a genre format” where there’s a big-picture, broad-viewpoint look at the situation and changed world. However, if the changed world is nothing but an unrealistic and worse, uninteresting analogy, that format is the worst possible.

Alternate history is a very divided genre. There are a lot of reasons for this, from the vague nature of what it even is to the different desires of different fandoms to how it’s frequently not considered advantageous to label a work as such. But that the “mainstream” end often consists of books like this doesn’t help.

Maybe there’d be more overlap if someone really did extensive research, made it more character focused, and kept it feeling substantially different while providing still noticeable but far more subtle commentary. Instead, Turtledove wrote this book, which I do not recommend.

Short Baseball

I discovered a sport called “short hockey” existed. That is hockey played with four skaters and a goalie per team with 10 minute periods across the width of a half-rink. As it’s much less exerting, teams can play a lot of games in just one day. As the ownership/sponsorship of all the Russian short hockey leagues I’ve seen by sportsbooks shows, it’s aimed more at gamblers than actual fans.

So I figured, what would “short baseball” look like? As is, baseball already has many more games feasibly scheduled than many other sports. Yet I decided to amplify it more with two tiers.

  • Semi-short baseball, which is like conventional baseball only with six innings, games ending in ties after two extra ones, a designated hitter, and some pace of play rules. Semi-short leagues, despite their betting-friendly nature, are treated as serious competitions with ceremony, champions, and the same rigorous record-keeping.
  • Mega-short baseball, which is just a means to an end of making as many gambling-friendly matches. Games are five two-out innings which automatically end in ties after the bottom of the fifth, there are rapid pitch clocks, and, most crucially, pitchers have to throw the ball in the least stressful way possible. This both saves on the need for countless pitchers and encourages scoring by having pitches be easier to hit. There are also no formal standings and essentially no official record-keeping.

If I can find an appropriate place for it in my fiction, I’ll gladly put “short baseball” in, with an alternate history background as to how it got started and developed (which almost certainly means earlier and more widespread legal sports betting in baseball-friendly countries).

Alternate History World War IIIs

That there are significantly fewer “conventional World War III” books than I thought when I started this blog is something I’ve repeatedly said. But I recently decided to take a look and see just how many (or, to be honest, how few) World War IIIs fit the “tail of the elephant” category of what I first saw online. The criteria were as follows.

  • They obviously had to be mostly conventional World War IIIs.
  • They had to be commercialized, even if only in self-published form.
  • They’re listed by series and not author to prevent long individual series from skewing the results.
  • They had to be unambiguous alternate history. So the 1980s classics wouldn’t count because those are set in a then-contemporary time.
  • They had to take place after 1980. The “just after World War II” WW3s are a different kind of fiction in my eyes.

With that, I got the following rough list.

  • -Harvey Black’s “Effect” series
  • -William Stroock’s World War 1990 series
  • -The Bear’s Claws by Russell Phillips
  • -Northern Fury H Hour
  • -John Agnew’s Operation Zhukov
  • -Brad Smith’s World War III 1985
  • -Martin Archer’s War Breaks Out
  • -James Burke’s The Weekend Warriors
  • -John Schettler’s Kirov series.
  • -Mark Walker’s Dark War series

There’s obviously ones I missed, but still, only ten entries. Ten. For comparison, there’s easily more different authors on the “action hero” tag here (I counted around 17.) It feels both satisfying to see even a general number and a little weird to know that what you saw was something as narrow in scope as Worm fanfiction (even if understandably so).

Review: The One Who Eats Monsters

The One Who Eats Monsters

monstercover

Once again, Fuldapocalypse takes the plunge into a new genre. After seeing a good review of it on Spacebattles, I decided to read Casey Matthews’ The One Who Eats Monsters for myself.

This of course, is an “urban fantasy” novel, where you have supernatural entities hidden inside the modern world. Ryn, the protagonist is one of them, an ancient humanoid creature and vicious ‘hunter of monsters’. Throughout the book she alternates between being a vigilante and protecting a politician’s daughter she begins to develop very human feelings for.

Urban fantasy isn’t really a genre I read much of, although more for matters of admitted personal taste than any actual, inherent dislike. With that in mind, it was good for what it was. It definitely has some notable flaws. The human dialogue was often, er, “subpar”, and there were dramatic contrivances that made sense in-universe but still felt forced from a storytelling perspective.

But that’s more than made up for by the book having exactly what a cheap thriller needs to succeed-good action and good pacing. This definitely has both, although the sequel hook segment at the end is incredibly rushed.

The characterization is mixed but still ultimately positive. Many of the other characters are either shallow, stereotypical, or both. However, Ryn’s “monster with a conscience” is well-done, and that’s what matters most. Even the romance (and this is not a romantic fiction blog) is done surprisingly well-done.

One interesting note is that this is technically an alternate history novel. Among other things, supernatural shenanigans prolonged the existence of the Soviet Union (ah, those Fuldapocalypse zombie sorceresses). It reminded me, alternate history reader and writer, of this very big phenomena where a lot of fiction could be reasonably labeled “alternate history”, but because there’s no real incentive to do so, it isn’t.

I’m still not exactly a fan of urban fantasy, but I don’t regret taking a chance on a different genre with this book.

The Flying Aircraft Carrier: Not Just For Comic Books

Yes, there was a serious study on the possibility of equipping 747s with trapeze catches and stuffing them full of “microfighters” to serve as flying aircraft carriers that could reach any hot spot soon.

aacdesign

Besides the expense and equally obvious safety issues, these microfighters were only benchmarked against the MiG-21 and their small size would make them harder to upgrade (although this could be mitigated by increasingly miniaturized electronics and giving them smart weapons that didn’t need to be carried en masse). Still, this is a similar gimmick to what the absolutely crazy (in a good way) Black Eagle Force series did with its fighters, and it’s great for fiction.

Box Press released

Box Press, my second Smithtown Unit ebook, has been released by Sea Lion Press. While the first installment  aimed to pay homage to the “men’s adventure” genre in all its forms, this one has a narrower and more obscure foundation. That would be the weirder books in the 1970s that tried to move beyond just shooting mobsters and brought in stranger antagonists as a result.

Enjoy the next adventure of Bill Morgan.

Review: Operation Sea Lion

Operation Sea Lion

The most infamous invasion that never was, Operation Sea Lion holds a special place in the annals of alternate history. Richard Cox’s book takes a 1974 wargame of it at Sandhurst and turns it into a Hackett-esque big picture tale. This can be described as a World War II version of The War That Never Was, taking simple wargame results and giving them a tiny fig leaf of “plot” via various vignettes.

Not surprisingly to anyone knowledgeable about alternate history, the wargame, despite deliberately going easy on the first wave (to have a substantive ground element at all) ends with the Royal Navy cutting the lines and the Germans defeated. It’s not Cox’s fault, but something with the outcome never in doubt is hard to make exciting for someone who knows the context.

That being said, this remains an amusing little historical alternate history footnote. It’s aimed at a popular audience who wouldn’t necessarily know the context, and is at least more literary than a rote after action report of the wargame itself would have been.

 

The Iceland Scale And The Origins of Fuldapocalypse

Back in the day when I was convinced that everywhere was being overrun by bad World War III stories, I made the Iceland Scale as part of my backlash. Now with a sense that I got too angry about it, I figure I should post both the scale itself and commentary on how it did and didn’t hold up.

This is probably going to be the longest post yet on Fuldapocalypse, and it’s been a long time in coming. This is something that I wanted to look back on. Now, with a lot of time on my hands and the last review of a “World War III” book being months old, I think it’s as good a time as any.

I’ve been worrying about how to say what I want to. Regardless, I still think this should be told, for it influenced the formation of this blog.

Here’s the scale itself:

BACKGROUND

-If the Soviets start the war: 1 Iceland
-If the Soviets do so in a way that, to the average reader, makes little sense: 3 Icelands.
-If there’s at least one chapter of “intrigue” leading to the shocking result that yes, in a WW3 book, WW3 starts: 5 Icelands per chapter/update.
-If NATO starts the war: -10000 Icelands

-If the third-person narrator delivers an infodump about forces deployed: 50 Icelands per infodump.
-If there’s a scene where a bunch of generals and leaders stand in a conference room and deliver a joint infodump about forces deployed: 600 Icelands per infodump.
-If the central and obvious protagonist is introduced prior to the fighting started: -20 Icelands

-If the war takes place in the 1970s or earlier: -100 Icelands
-If the war takes place in the 1980s: 1 Iceland
-If the war takes place in the 1990s or beyond, with a surviving/restored USSR: -5 Icelands

CONDUCT OF THE WAR

-If NATO wins: 1 Iceland
-If the USSR wins: -500 Icelands
-If the war ends in a nuclear apocalypse: -200 Icelands

-If the war remains conventional throughout: 1 Iceland
-If nuclear weapons are occasionally used in anger, but the war stays largely conventional: 150 Icelands

-If the Soviets invade Iceland: 1000 Icelands
-If the Soviets invade any part of the United States proper: 15000 Icelands

-If the battles focus around tanks or aircraft: 1 Iceland per battle
-If the battles focus around ships or submarines: 1 Iceland per battle
-if the battles involve gritty, close infantry firefights: -10 Icelands per battle

-If any part of the story takes place in Germany: 100 Icelands
-If any part of the story takes place in the Atlantic Ocean: 200 Icelands
-If any part of the story takes place in a theater other than the two mentioned above: -50 Icelands

CHARACTERIZATION

-If there is one central, total viewpoint character: -25 Icelands.
-Likewise, if the number of viewpoint characters numbers:
-2-5: 10 Icelands
-5-10: 50 Icelands
->10: 1000 Icelands
-If there are no “characters” in a traditional literary sense at all: 500 Icelands.

-If a character’s physical appearance is described: -10 Icelands
-If a character is given an infodump to serve as their sole form of development: 100 Icelands

-If a weapons system is described in more detail than the basic terms (ie, M1A1, T-80BV rather than M1/Abrams or T-80): 15 Icelands
-If a weapons system is given more description or development than a character: 100 Icelands

-If any characters are in a position of utter powerlessness-(civilians, routed soldiers): -25 Icelands
-If any Soviet characters exist as mustache-twirling puppy kickers: 10 Icelands
-If any NATO characters exist as mustache-twirling puppy kickers: -100 Icelands

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

So how did this come into being?

At the time I had read far fewer “cheap thrillers” in general and my exposure came in three places:

  • Wargames, where World War IIIs are over-represented compared to other types of fiction. (A study of scenario locations in Steel Panthers MBT had about 27% of them being “World War III” in some form, a ratio that is definitely not true of fiction in general).
  • Red Storm Rising itself and a few of the knockoffs, particularly Harvey Black and Brad Smith.
  • A boomlet of conventional World War III TLs/stories on alternatehistory.com.

In hindsight, the knockoff triple-xeroxed fanfiction of Hackett (or Clancy/Bond, or Coyle, or Peters, or Red Dawn) that appeared on AH really wasn’t that good, bad, or representative. It’s like trying to see what crime fiction is like by reading the entries in the Law and Order section of fanfiction.net.

But it’s what I was reading at the time.

What holds up?

I’d say the supervillain Soviets and longer weapons descriptions. That’s pretty much it for just cheap thrillers in general. For technothrillers, the conference room scenes are probably the biggest.

And there are “Icelandic” stories out there. There just aren’t that many. Instead of looking at overbearing cliches, I was accidentally focusing on a very small, very niche type of writing. I was the blind man touching one part of the elephant.

And what doesn’t?

A lot. First, the invasion of Iceland itself isn’t a staple even in World War III stories. It appeared in wargaming and Red Storm Rising. And really not that much else, even in that narrow niche.

A few instances had stories that were “Icelandic” but not necessarily bad. Team Yankee checks most of the Iceland boxes on paper, but is a smoothly flowing story that’s the exact opposite of the cumbersome “boom boom goes the tank” I’d seen on the internet.

But most of it was simply not “Icelandic” at all. And this includes almost all of the cheap thrillers that were actually written. Nukes aren’t handwaved away, they’re incorporated into the story in some fashion. As a look at the number of “Action Hero” and “Special Forces” tags on this blog shows, shooter fiction with an unambiguous main character leaves “big war thrillers” in its dust. By a gigantic margin.

Why is the “They invade the US” score so high?

This is probably the most personally biased score of them all. It’s not overly representative or even prominent in a few specific pieces the way Iceland was (the exception being Red Dawn). Rather, seeing rote rivet-counting descriptions of Soviet invasions of the continental US flared up one of my frustrations with internet alternate history.

I should note that this is one of the least connected to actual commercial fiction. It could not be further from the special forces raid in Northern Fury (a more workable scenario) or the invasion in the early Survivalist (something that didn’t involve rivet counting).

So why this? Well, internet alternate history has, as it’s grown, sort of shifted in a questionable way. The idea behind simply writing in ways that aren’t conventional narratives was so that writers, unencumbered by the need for plots/characterizations, could fill in a lot of details.

As the community diluted, this became a way to avoid detail, done by people who cared less about “plausibility”. The analogy I’d use is, of all things, car racing. A race car is not a practical car for everyday driving, and the people involved know it. But then people start building race cars. They have one seat and no amenities, but the focus is on that one seat and the shape and not how fast they can go. But at the same time there’s just enough residual race car focus to dull the edges. The cars aren’t in goofy novelty shapes, they’re just race cars that look like race cars but with engines that a stock 1992 Camry could outpace.

As AH’s own wiki states about fictional election results lists, “No offense, but very few people are impressed by your ability to make up fake percentages. For extra cliché points, present them through Wikiboxes. “

Likewise, seeing lists and lists of orders of battle and recitations for something I knew was both implausible and unsuitable for its genre prompted an overreaction in me. I say overreaction because it’s like treating fanfiction that ignores the genre of its base work in favor of sleaze and/or sloppiness as something unique or distinctly bad. Once you know the context, it’s unsurprising and arguably uninteresting.

I guess another analogy is like vs. debates tiering, where it’s something nominally “crunchy”, a field that can bring often unjustified aggravation quickly, and where studying the context of how something that should be technical became lowbrow is a lot more interesting than seeing the end result of questionable infodumps.

Does the Iceland Scale have any retroactive value?

It’s basically one of those fanfic “litmus tests” you see floating around on the internet. After all, the place that motivated it was essentially a fanfiction board, only with “history” as the setting .

And well, especially after writing creative fiction, and especially after seeing much more, I don’t really think so. I’ve been a litmus test skeptic because this kind of fiction tends to have the execution be important. It’s entirely possible to have what should be a rote “shoot the terrorist” premise but succeed with good execution. Likewise, take a “Clive Cussler’s” book that has on paper a goofy premise but is just dull.

Team Yankee has a lot of “Icelandic” elements on paper but is well-done. Even Red Army has a parade of viewpoint characters-and it’s also done well. Northern Fury H-Hour would probably rank very high given that it’s an explicit homage, and its execution was also done effectively.

I mean, this has been a little unpleasant for me to think about, which is why I’ve been holding off on writing this post or something like it for a long time. I got too caught up in board drama (which is a staple of AH.com), and it’s kind of a sign of how narrow-minded I was. As I’ve repeatedly said, the diversification of Fuldapocalypse was something genuinely good in a lot of ways.

Some time ago, I made this silly graphic to show how much my horizons were broadened. It’s true.

fuldapocalypseexpectation

What lessons do you think there are from the Iceland Scale?

These are kind of truisms, but…

  • Don’t get too caught up in any one fandom. While I think alternate history has some unique hangups, fandom drama is definitely not unique to it.
  • Don’t get caught up in something with small sample size, and always look for more perspective.
  • Broaden your literary horizons, even in the same basic genre.

When I wrote the Iceland Scale, I was convinced there were too many conventional WW3 stories out there. Now I feel there arguably aren’t enough. There’s certainly very few. A single very long series can outnumber the “conventional WWIII” genre, and a single prolific author can easily outpace the entire “big war thriller” type of book.  So upon seeing an “Icelandic” story, my thought is now less “Argh, another WWIII” and more “oh, it’s a niche story that probably isn’t for me”. So this horizon-broadening has been very positive. Not just for enjoyment, but for understanding.

How did this help lead to Fuldapocalypse?

Here’s how. Part of the reason for starting Fuldapocalypse was because I didn’t want to crowd out the Creative Corner. Of course, this ended up doing just that as my interests shifted, but that’s another story.

But another part of starting Fuldapocalypse came from me wanting to give these stories a more fair and critical shake. And I’ll say this flat out-I at first went about it the wrong way. My initial goal was “move past the board drama, look at ‘real’ published World War III books, and use a rigorous scale to see how they differed and what cliches they did and didn’t follow, so that your own emotion and opinions can mostly stay out of it”. It was trying to move towards a narrower slice of fiction, towards a more robotic litmus test.

Thankfully, it worked out. I soon grew tired with my self-imposed limitations and began, slowly at first, reading and reviewing stuff that wasn’t “Icelandic” at all. While it took a little while for me to throw off the shackles entirely, I did. And this is the reason why I made the post-instead of constantly obsessing over something, whatever its (lack of) quality, shouldn’t be obsessed over, this post can stand between whatever non-Icelandic works of fiction strike my fancy.

Review: The Dragons of Dunkirk

The Dragons of Dunkirk

dragonsdunkirkcover

Damon Alan’s The Dragons Of Dunkirk grabbed me the moment I looked at the cover. Naturally, I thought of Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar series, only with fantasy invaders instead of sci-fi ones. I also thought of an early Fuldapocalypse review, Dark War Revelation, only set forty years earlier.

So, the German supernatural unlocking goes horrifically wrong, leaving the world exposed to a classical fantasy realm ruled by an ancient wizard (but not a zombie sorceress, sadly). Multiple characters of both sides take in the conflict as it ensues.

There’s a lot this book hasn’t done well. The dialogue is a little stiff, and the action not the best. The worldbuilding on the fantasy side isn’t the most truly distinctive.The characters, while adequate, aren’t more than that.

But what it does do well outweighs that. Alan manages to keep the conflict between a magical and technologically advanced side balanced in a way that doesn’t seem too contrived. (I’ll just say that bullets are something they can withstand to a big degree, but artillery shells are something else).

It has a great concept and an execution that, though imperfect, doesn’t squander it in any way. What’s not to like?

 

Review: Himmler’s War

Himmler’s War

I decided it was time to read one of the most infamous names in alternate history. Entering one of my “moods”, I figured, “go for Robert Conroy, and reverse your order of preference.” Normally I’d pick out the most bizarre premise, and Conroy, with his flock of “US gets invaded” novels, certainly has a lot of those. But for this, I chose the most cliche and shopworn one of all-Himmer’s War, which features that obscure and understudied conflict, World War II.

The divergence is simple to explain-a lucky hit from an off-course Allied bomber kills Hitler after D-Day, the titular SS head takes over, and proceeds to change the war, viewed from the usual top-to-bottom viewpoint characters.

Now it was probably a big mistake reading one of David Glantz’s books on the history of the Red Army right before this, especially with the scenes involving the Soviets. This is one of the most pop-historical, “wehraboo” books ever.

  • In about a month, the Germans can conduct major reforms and become better (sort of).
  • Stalin agrees to peace just because Bagration is slowing down.
  • Stalin agrees to give the Germans huge numbers of T-34s in exchange for one collaborating general. Oh-K?
  • The Germans build an atomic bomb before Skorzeny sneaks it to Moscow and detonates it, killing Stalin.

And then in the later part of the book the Americans just bulldoze their way across the Rhine anyway and win quickly, throwing in a “noble Clean Wehrmacht Rommel” to save the day and neatly clean up the potentially messy aftermath, because Conroy realized he didn’t use that particular World War II alternate history cliche yet.

That part of the book is legitimately interesting because it’s where Conroy’s failure as an alternate historian intersects “perfectly” with Conroy’s failure as a writer. It’s the sort of thing that, ideally, would take two books…

…Or zero, because, alternate history aside, Conroy’s writing isn’t the greatest. His characters are all cliches of some sort. The dialogue is horrendous. And finally, his writing of battles leaves something to be desired. Given that he’s writing a book taking place during a war, this is a big problem. Add in too many characters for their own good and minor, useless subplots like FDR having a stroke and barely living to his next inauguration.

There’s a reason why Conroy has the reputation that he has, and it’s a justified one. Even as “soft alternate history” and as a cheap thriller, Himmler’s War falls short.